Saturday, 1 May 2004

Darknesses

L. E. Modesitt Jr.
Tor
ISBN: 0-765-30704-9


This second volume in the Corean Chronicles starts, as you would expect, where the first left off. The immortal ruler of Madrien has fallen and that country is no longer a threat to the beleaguered Iron Valleys. Alucius, now a Captain in the Valleys Militia, longs for nothing more than to return to his wife and farmstead in the wintry north, but it seems greater things are in store for him. The war with Madrien has bankrupted Alucius’ small country and when the larger nation of Lanachrona begins raiding across the border the Iron Valleys cannot afford food, arms or wages for its men and has no choice but to accept the rule of Lanachrona’s Lord Protector.

With the Militia absorbed into Lanachrona’s armies, Alucius finds himself and his men marching east to defend that country’s ally, Deforya, from the forces of a barbarian invader who would conquer all of Corus. Treated as expendable by his new commanders, Alucius and his men find themselves fighting ancient magical beasts thought little more than legends. Struggling to deal with threats from all sides, Alucius learns more about the Corus’ dark history and the sinister powers behind the shadow that threatens to overwhelm the continent. Forced to fight to protect the quiet life he longs for, Alucius becomes embroiled in an ancient conflict between good and evil and finds himself battling for the survival of life itself…

‘Darknesses’ is, I am happy to report, a significant improvement on the first book in the Corean Chronicles. While being - at least at first - a typical story of fantasy warfare, it cuts out much of the tedious description of everyday minutiae which plagued ‘Legacies’ and instead concentrates on the action, whether it be battle, intrigue, or Alucius’s worries about the future of both his men and his country under a new ruler.

However, in the latter the reader is granted only slight insight into the hero’s thoughts and motivations, just as before, leaving Alucius something of an enigma. While it may be that the author intended his hero to be so lacking in personality, it makes Alucius difficult to sympathise with as his single-mindedness and permanent calm give him an air of unreality. In a book where there is only really one major character, this is a serious problem. Excellent interludes written with subtle wit and style shed new light on the events unfolding behind the scenes, but they just act to reinforce the hero’s lack of character, as they are often populated by minor players granted far more depth in a few lines than Alucius is in the whole novel.

The failings of the major character aside, ‘Darknesses’ is an example of the old fantasy standby “the Return of an Ancient Evil” given a fresh coat of paint and with one or two new ideas inserted. The presence of high technology from a fallen realm in what is otherwise a very generic fantasy setting breathes new life into the setting while the magic, or ‘Talent’ as it is known, is vividly and powerfully described, but by themselves these slight innovations are not enough. Simply put, ‘Darknesses’ stands or falls only by the quality of Modesitt’s writing, so it is fortunate that his mind is capable enough to bring such vision and depth to the novel. Particularly in the final section of the book, following Alucius’ realisation of the enormity of the threat Corus is facing, the pace is thunderous and the narrative irresistible. The slow build-up pays off in a great rush of storytelling that keeps the pages turning until the epilogue, loose ends tied off and yet still a hint of menace remains, an ever-present threat that the battle is never over. As such, I am happy to carefully place ‘Darknesses’ on my ‘Worth the wait’ shelf.


This review was originally written for SFcrowsnest.com